Monday, November 24, 2014

Climate change developments

A few things caught my eye over the weekend. First, and most excitingly, the price of solar and wind energy is dropping significantly, to the point that they are competitive with gas and coal. While that sounds technical, the bottom line is that cheap energy is what people want, so if solar and wind energy can be produced cheaply, we are well on our way to getting rid of carbon emitting fuels. The sticking point, the article notes, is that both are still intermittent: you don't get energy from a windmill on a calm day. So, the issue is whether someone can develop a good battery. Hopefully with Elon Musk on the job, we can overcome this technical barrier and stop relying on dirty fuels.

Second is that scientists have proposed a link between climate change and the "polar vortex" incidents that are becoming more common. Warming in the Arctic changes the jet stream flow, bringing down the polar air onto unsuspecting places like Denver, which a few weeks ago experienced a 40 degree drop in temperature in 6 hours. When I graduated from Cal in 2008, the graduation speaker said that instead of climate change people should be calling it, "Global Climate Destabilization." Fairly apocalyptic, but that name fits this jet stream movement pretty well, if in fact it is traceable to climate change.

Finally, the NYT has a series on the oil industry in North Dakota. Since deposits there recently became accessible, the economy there has boomed, but so has the industry's influence, to predictably foul effects.  Part I and Part II so far.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A new carbon sink: compost on the range

"Cover the earth with compost!" This may be the new rallying cry of environmentalists: a recent study finds that spreading compost on rangeland helps the land absorb carbon from the atmosphere at the same time as it improves soil fertility. Whoa! A double benefit!

It's sure nice to have some non-controversial good things to post on the blog from time to time!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

GMO critic changes his mind

This guy is long-winded, to put it mildly, but it's a convincing account of the views of a published GMO critic who rethinks his position. Even if you don't agree, there are some interesting thoughts here.

I think he is a little harsh in his treatment of organic agriculture: he condemns it as 40-50% less productive than conventional agriculture, and notes that less productive methods mean that more land must be used to produce the same amount. While this is true, I think he overlooks the fact that chemical-intensive practices and repeated monocropping deplete the soil. That mostly means that it's important to rotate. Also it's important to remember that some varieties of GMO actually reduce the need for chemicals. Others don't, but Bt cotton is an example of a crop that requires fewer pesticides than other crops.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Chesapeake Oysters

For the last few years I have banned "oysters" as a possible term paper topic. The first few times I offered the course I was inundated by a surge of bad oyster papers, and I tell students that they gave me indigestion. The truth is just that I didn't see much controversial about them: they clean the Bay and they are economically viable in some places. So what's not to like?

Nice little article set me straight about it: traditional harvesters (locally called "watermen") apparently don't like oyster farmers because they put part of the Bay off limits for harvesting. Also they can't like the competition, though farmed oysters, being at least somewhat more labor intensive than the naturally harvested variety, may cost more. Also, some people find the nets unsightly.

Nothing's ever that easy, is it?